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Where I Criticize a Beer and Tax Infographic

So I said I had some things to say about another of the infographics that Jay Brookston had posted on his blog. Here it is.

Let’s go with the positive first: I like the color scheme.

Now let’s move onto my criticism.

In the first chart I don’t see any reason why Distilled Spirits would be the leftmost bar, the next five bars seem to go in ascending order, and then Artificially Carbonated Wines drops down.  OK, you want to keep all the various levels of Stilled Wine together…maybe?…and it looks like Artificially Carbonated Wines would go between Still Wine (21-24%) and Still Wine (14-20%). Maybe Distilled Spirits is on the left because your Y-axis is labeled on the left and you thought that having the legend and the label on the same side would make it left heavy. So here’s my recommendation. First of all: Try not to care about splitting the Still Wine categories. They’re different categories for a reason, if Excise splits them up, so can you. Bars should just be organized in order. OR…or you could stack all the bars left of Distilled Spirits. This would tell an interesting story, no? –that distilled spirits are taxed far more heavily than most (all?) of the other categories combined. Also, just label the bars and drop the legend entirely.

For the second, third, and fourth charts, the criticism is the same. Drop the non-informational alphabetical order and put the states in order from least to greatest (or greatest to least). That both gets rid of the weird callout boxes that label the highest and lowest states AND it allows for easier comparison between booze types.

The bottom half of the chart  is dedicating to “putting things into perspective,” and the first part lists the top ten global alcohol consuming countries. But…the US doesn’t appear in the Top 10. How far behind are we? Are we #11, #200?  Perspective literally requires that you see your object in relation to other objects.  Moreover, the top half of the chart and the bottom quarter tell a story about taxes. To “put things in perspective” this chart should be about how many dollars the US collects in taxes vis-à-vis other countries. Who cares how much is drunk?

In the bottom half of the bottom half, the chart moves back to taxes and “to give perspective” charts the rise in excise taxes collected since 1977. So, for starters, the Y-axis doesn’t start at 0, and while this isn’t a huge deal to me because I like to concentrate on relative and not absolute change (sometimes) you should still note that you’ve made that choice.  And why start in 1977? This chart gives every impression of being trimmed to exaggerate effect.

Finally, this chart doesn’t seem to index the money for inflation, per capita or any of the other normalization methods. The fact is, that 2 billion in 1977 dollars is worth more than 2 billion today and so the gap between 1977 and 2007 isn’t nearly as wide as you are implying (both through not normalizing and through not starting the chart at $0.) If this is the “perspective” aimed for, it indicates the entire chart has an ulterior motive beyond simple education. But what would that be? My mind immediately leaps to the conclusion that you want us to know that the government is collecting a lot, maybe too much in taxes. But you missed a golden opportunity to do this. You haven’t talked about sales taxes. And you haven’t talked about income taxes from people employed in the alcohol ecosystem which would include chemists, farmers, bioengineers, brewers, retailers, distributors, corporate insurers, bartenders, banks,…marketers, corporate lawyers, sales staff, administrators, accountants, operations staff, and, at the other end, hospitals, doctors, policemen, litigators, and personal injury and auto insurers. So the point of the piece must be that, the US’s excise taxes are too high even though we aren’t even one of the top 10 drinking countries.

Of course, these numbers don’t tell that story because you’ve forgotten the other side. What rank should we be? How much in taxes is too much? How are the states with the lowest excise taxes faring? How about the highest?

I’m not arguing for or against excise taxes (here), but I don’t like  bad data visualization and I don’t like shoddy argumentation worse.

Maybe it was just a fun exercise. Intuit had access to tax information so they pumped something out to get their name in the data visualization internet world. Well it worked. But they could be doing much, much better (including making their intent more clear, if I haven’t basically sussed it out already).

[I recommend opening the image below in a separate image, so you can the post down the length of the image….if you care about that sort of thing.]

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Posted in The Drinking Class.